learning love songs

est. 2008


love songs


I remember when Jack Antonoff released “I Wanna Get Better,” and it was this explosive thing, this beautiful, fun and upbeat song about being at your worst and losing your mind and that moment you decide you can lift yourself up. At the time I couldn’t quite get into it. While I could tell it was a great song (with a sweet guitar solo!) it was too happy even in spite of its dark messaging because it indicated hope and light after you hit rock bottom and I wasn’t really keen on any recovery messaging at the time. I was still in a free fall.

But two days ago, I played the new Bleachers track “Don’t Take the Money” while paging through the new Spotify releases and it was like being hit by lightening. What a passionate, powerful pop-rock tune, entirely retro-cool and now, while lyrically diving into deep waters about the anguish of relationships and the inner yearnings we have to be more, to break free, to be true to ourselves. The release totally caught me off-guard, and now has me shuffling through the Bleachers back catalog with fervor. It’s such good stuff! It’s poppy and hooky, but deep and introspective, it’s lucid and vibrant but grounded in its authentic reflection.

While 2014’s Strange Desires is a cohesive introduction to Antonoff’s style and sound, his latest thoughts about his newest single make me think the next record will be even more realized. I loved what he wrote on his Instagram about the song, specifically —

“you know that feeling? when you’ve tried your best to destroy yourself and someone else but it’s too strong to be destroyed? when you’ve tried to fling you a your partner out of an emotional window but you keep landing in heaven? that’s when it’s all clear.”

“Fling your partner out of an emotional window” is probably not a scientific psychiatric term, but I would humbly suggest it ought to be. And speaking to his comments overall, I appreciate Antonoff’s unfiltered attitude toward mental health and the expressive, free way he talks about it. This kind of frankness, this kind of real talk, can go a long way toward reducing stigma and toward making those of us who are feeling less-than-whole and less-than-worthy feel less alone in our struggles.

Because it’s normal to have feelings, even bad ones. And they don’t have to be swept under the carpet, or on the flip side, romanticized into something exotic and taboo. They can just happen, and we are left to deal with them however we can at the time. Antonoff’s own thoughts on being vulnerable while songwriting are worth visiting here in a recent Pitchfork interview; he explains how you don’t have to write about the necessarily be writing about the hard stuff to make cool music, but it’s the hard stuff that he wants to focus on in his songs and with the artists he collaborates with. Though I don’t subscribe to the belief that one *has* to be depressed or suffering in order to make good art, I think creativity is a terrific way to deal with those feelings or work through them — to write about them, to sing about them, to capture them in a photograph. With a little determination and effort, our worst experiences and lower moments might prove to be the breeding grounds for our next best inspiration.

“When you’re looking at your shadow
Standing on the edge of yourself
Preying on the darkness
Just don’t take the money
Dreaming of an easy
Waking up without weight now
And you’re looking at the heartless
Just don’t take the money

You steal the air out of my lungs, you make me feel it
I pray for everything we lost, buy back the secrets
Your hand forever’s all I want
Don’t take the money.”
~Don’t Take the Money




A little YouTube browsing through the Anti Records channel last week led to me the excellent catalog of Sean Rowe, an Anti singer-songwriter with a little bit of twang and a whole lot of heart.

His voice is like a smooth whiskey, warm and filling and soothing. It’s also quite lovely to hear such a booming bass sing thoughts and phrases so poetic and romantic. His songs have a lot of detail and all seem to be about heartbreak, moving on or getting lost, with rhyming verses and simple structure. He’s often accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and spare bass, or joined by thumping drums, handclaps, horns and soulful-style backup vocals.

Rowe has a questioning nature to his songs, as if each is exploring a feeling and a moment. The title track of his 2014 Madman is an excellent ode to self-awareness and motivation, while my favorite for now, a new track off his forthcoming record New Lore called “Gas Station Rose,” looks at the hope in a relationship.

I’ve struggled lately in discovering new artists, mostly digging into back catalogs or new releases from old favorites.But the random selecction of Rowe’s playlist seems to have restarted my discovery lock.

Rowe has an album coming out in April — definitely one I’ll be adding to my list.

“Another year gone by like the signs on the street
Highway seventy-five, Nebraska flat as a sheet
Living out of the trunk, we bounce around like a dream
Another major drawback, another sweet in between
At least we’re both confused together…

But maybe the mountain in our eyes
Looks like a molehill from the other side

We are the elders of our minds
We’re on our own.”

~Gas Station Rose
Sean Roew, New Lore


One of the best things about getting older? You start caring less and less about what people think of you and your tastes. So it is without a shred of shame I admit I have almost exclusively listened to Ed Sheeran since his billion-views busting Divide album came out Friday (OK, with some Japandroids, The Menzingers and Laura Marling thrown in there, too) and I still think he’s one of the best pop songwriters of his generation.

Sheeran’s spoken word delivery can be construed as annoying to some, but I dig the rhythms and phrases he finds. His guitar playing is distinct and often innovative. And lord, those ballads — he can break hearts and mend them with a refrain with the best of them. “Photograph” and “Tenerife Sea” held the place as my favorite love songs of his last record while “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” and “Dive” are the ones I’m most into this time around.

My favorite song on the record, though, the one that I go back to play before skipping among the others, is “Castle On The Hill,” a dedication to the friends Ed grew up with and the times they shared. It’s a familiar story for anyone who spent their teenage years with a tight knit group who inevitably broke away from each other as they grew up and life pulled them in separate directions.

Not only is the musicality of the song gorgeous and moving and triumphant, but the topic is one that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe it’s living across the country from those who know me best, maybe it’s wishing we were better able to share the activities and interests of our lives together again. Maybe it’s wishing I had more reunions to look forward to. All I know is when I hear Ed Sheeran sing about driving down country roads, singing to “Tiny Dancer” with his friends and watching sunsets, I think about wandering the city long past our bedtimes, meeting up on a grassy hillside and watching the stars preside over our dreams as we wished upon each and every one of them we’d never have to grow up.

“I’m on my way
Driving at ninety down those country lanes
Singing to “Tiny Dancer”
And I miss the way you make me feel, and it’s real
We watched the sunset over the castle on the hill…”

~Castle On The Hill
Ed Sheeran, Divide



How good is the new Japandroids album? So good it might be the best rock album we’ve seen since their last effort? I’m inclined to say yes — I’ve been glued to it and its hooks, pounding rhythms, expert production…there’s a lot to love here even before you unpack the meaning. At the moment, one song in particular has me totally hooked — “True Love and A Free Life of Free Will.”

When I first heard the album this song stood out but not in a major way; the album is pretty short so it was easy to remember what song was which and feel the entire flow at the same time. But over the past week or so, “True Love…” is my jam. It’s got a slow march feel that reminds me of “Continuous Thunder,” and brilliantly simple little scenes of cafes and catinas. Japandroids songs have a way of being deeply poetic and emotional without being too purple, too snobby, or too high-minded, which is why I think they have so much pull with critics and people who listen to music for a living. “True Love..” is a slow jam, the closet thing to a ballad on Near to the Wild Heart of Life, but it’s got a pounding rhythm and fuzzy aplenty to give it rock and roll heart.

It doesn’t take too long to decode the meaning behind a Japandroids song, another reason they’re so fun to listen to and write about to boot. “Spill your secrets and paint my days,” Brian King sings in a desperate plea. Then, later, he ends a verbose verse with “a little money and whatever’s on the radio,” , as if it is a throwaway line but it is anything but, instead it sets a tangible scene. The final chorus — which gets me every time — kicks in with a delicate guitar line before building to an outro, a really simple setting but a satisfying one nonetheless, as Japandroids are wont to do.

With only eight of them, every track on “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” shows the scenes of a life that all connect back to the same themes — ambition, risk and reward, mortality. All are powerful, but it’s the love songs that make the heart ache and cry and sing — “No Known Drink or Drug” is one of the band’s best songs yet and it’s a total sing-it-from-the-rafters anthem to love. “True Love,” with its romantic notions and realistic landscape, is absolutely stunning to me — it’s a perfect summation of the dare-to-dream, dare-to-love attitude the album is all about.

“Plans to settle down
Plans to up and split
Plans loose as the morals we are planning with
Baby be the beast, but free what burdens be
And I’ll love you if you love me.”

~True Love and A Free Life of Free Will
Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life


From the low and rumbled opening tones, Miranda Lambert’s “The Weight of These Wings” is one of the best country offerings of the year, and I’ve been losing myself in its beauty daily.

A double album is a rare and risky move, as who can put out that much work that merits attention all at once? It seems like you’re asking for filler. But here, every song offers a little bit more of the unfolding story, and it’s solid start to finish. After hearing the lead single “Vice” earlier this year I looked forward to what kind of soul-searching Lambert would offer up. I love the tones, topics and narratives she shares, the kind that clearly raise her from the radio country throne she once occupied into a higher plane of performers.

The opening track “Running Just In Case” is a slow burn, the kind that color most of the album. “I guess no one ever taught me how to stay,” she says, just one of the many poignant observations to come. “Getaway Driver” struck me as an instant favorite, with its harmonies and cyclical chords and ballad-style perspective. Then I found out it was a newly anticipated collaboration with Anderson East — I would say there’s some magic brewing in that pairing.

Lambert is bluesy and bold, and as assertive as we’ve come to expect, but she’s not just belting for its own sake. To the contrary, there’s more soft tones than there are loud ones. While this record is fueled by heartbreak (songs like “Tin Man” chronicle the pains of love) it doesn’t feel like a break-up album as much as come-back-together one. It’s Lambert’s spine, strength and vision for her life to come that ebb and flow, and she filters her many relationship reflections through a lens of moving forward as a whole person. It’s so much more motivational and introspective than maudlin or mushy as one might think “country” to be. And it’s not all bad news. Our narrator is a girl-about-town who travels and creates and believes in herself, and even love, despite its failings. “Pushin’ Time” is the romantic peak of the album, and it’s taken the mantle of my favorite Miranda track (previously held by “Bathroom Sink”).

While it’s the slow jams that steal the show, the upbeat tracks are still miles beyond what we heard on “Platinum.” They embrace lots more instrumentation and a folksier sound that’s more Willie Nelson or Bonnie Raitt than the radio country mainstays like Jason Aldean or Kenny Chesney that Lambert usually shares the charts with. Musically, there’s excellent choices and production on this album that keep it elevated but accessible. Acoustic guitars, horn sections, pedal steel, muted drums…it’s a very Americana lexicon paired with Lambert’s confessionals that make for a mature, full-fledged sound. She lets her voice crack and fall in very natural ways, instead of belting out pop-star style, though there’s tons of power in her voice seen on tracks like “Good Ol’ Days” and “To Learn Her.” At a time when excellent folk and country has captured modern audiences through the likes of Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, Lambert looks to pivot from an established female artist who can command those same indie, picky audiences. To be fair, Kasey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe have done this too, but from a different angle, as Lambert already has a big following. Bottom line: “The Weight of These Wings” has eternal qualities that will appeal to listener beyond her core audience.

Lyrically, there’s plenty of moments that are either heartbreaking, cutting, comforting or inspiring. “I don’t have the nerve to use my heart,” she sings on the closer of the first album, just one example of many well-crafted lines in a song flooded with gorgeous steel guitar parts. I think I read somewhere that this is the most co-writing Lambert has done on a record, and it speaks beautifully to her self-aware and poetic. “I was born a bull in a China cabinet,” she says on “Things That Break,” kicking off 3:48 worth of metaphor and vivid imagery. “Keeper of the Flame” is a rallying cry to all those who has ever been called to be the kind of somebody who accomplishes something. Then there’s the bookend songs about highways that start and finish the album, with plenty more journeying in between.

Spout off her name to high-minded listeners and it might conjure up images of flashy sequined dresses, songs about trashing cheating ex’s cars with baseball bats and celebrity romances. But with all its beauty and poetry, “The Weight of These Wings” shows us a version of of Miranda Lambert that’s a far cry from the reputation or stereotypes. Instead of any trope, she’s simply herself, and as authentic, true, powerful, talented and strong as a woman, artist or woman artist ought to be.

“I didn’t plan on fallin’ fast;
I didn’t know I could be kissed like that.
No I’m tradin’ miles for minutes.
This bed’s too big without you in it.

Sometimes love acts out of spite,
And good things happen over night.
Can’t take it slow cause you and I are pushin’ time
You and I are pushin’ time.”
~Pushin’ Time
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Songs


I don’t like Adele. I don’t! Never have. Found her annoying from the start. But, she’s apparently the newest record-setter for album sales, I don’t really care for her voice, or her sap, but goddammit if I wasn’t hypnotized by this performance (which I only found because I was reading about a producer on The Fader during my lunch break).

I gotta give it up for this. And I have to watch it again. Her vocal ability is spot-on as she nails every high note and run-on melody. The song is less annoying lyrically than some others, and the setting of simple gutiar parts and back-up signers in the studio is exactly the way ballads should be recorded live. I also love the little two-note guitar part that starts before the pre-chorus, the way it builds into something more. Her change-up of lyrics it the final chorus has a peel-back-the-curtain effect. And, in full disclosure, earlier today I saw a recording of her performing that too-ubiquitous “Hello” single w/Jimmy Fallon and The Roots as one of their rather clever classroom instrument renditions, and it was pretty impossible to not enjoy it, if only for noticing the great instincts and reactions of the band around her song and performance.

Ugh, so, am I changing my tune on Adele? Meh. I am not going to purchase “25.” I’m not!! But maybe I won’t mind as much when she comes up in random playlists, knowing that her performance skills are so incredibly strong, and her sense of romance in her lyrics maybe isn’t all radio cliches after all.

“Let me photograph you in this light
In case it is the last time,
That we might be exactly like we were
Before we realized
We were sad of getting old
It made us restless
I’m so mad I’m getting old
It makes me reckless

It was just like a movie
It was just like a song
When we were young.”

~When We Were Young,
Adele, 25


I’ll admit Brian Fallon could play the alphabet acoustic and I’d think it was a brilliant expression of heartache and passion worth replaying a dozen times in a row. But this recent performance of “Red Lights,” from his side project creation Molly and the Zombies, is absolutely exemplary of everything he is good at. Like many songwriters, Fallon has a sweet spot of favorite chords. These Gs and Cm9s are his. He has this way of setting scene to emotional wreckage that is classic and real and sad-sad-sad, so fucking sad, lyrically and also performance-wise. The way he says, “burned before” has so many years behind it, the way he lets his voice drift down at the end of the chorus suggests the fragility of honest expression. I love the pace of this little song, and its moment-by-moment perspective, its reminder of taking advantage of the little calms in the constant, claustrophobic pressure of emotional-ridden storms

“In all good faith and sentiment
I can’t believe somehow
that I haven’t died of grief or something.
Since you left this town.

I’m all undecorated cigarettes,
and standard white apartment walls.

At 3 A.M. and 4 A.M.,
it’s impossible to sleep,

I’d do anything to hold you,
and feel you next to me.
But I’m all sore eyes and beasts
at my backdoor, pulling out their claws.

So yes I will take those,
whatever else they give me.
If it stops the nightmares,
it probably won’t kill me.
and if I slow it down I’ll end up on my accusers’ knives,
so I only stop to tell her that I love her at the red lights.

And all in all I’m wrecked you see
From years of piping down
and piping up about the things,
that never mattered anyhow
When you change too much you lose yourself
and some times you just can’t get them back.

And you might be an angel, or devil I don’t know
but if in fact you are now love
Well I’ve been there before.
I’ve fallen on my face
and I’ve been burned so near to death I probably won’t live through it

So yes I will take those
whatever else they give me.
If it stops the nightmares
it probably won’t kill me.

and if I slow it down I’ll end up on my accusers’ knives
so I only stop to tell her that I love her at the red lights.”

~Red Lights 
Molly and the Zombies

(Edit: Once, in a live performance, Fallon tacked on “Pictures of You” to “Ladykiller.” Just serendipitous, when chords & songs mesh perfectly.)


Focus is hard to find today. I am hypnotized by this song, and also what’s happening outside the windows, for hours now, feeling it better to get lost in something greater than myself. Soft snow falls hard, like a secret begging to be told, a promise hardly kept. Some kind of sweet, small magic, simple and private, turned torrential and vast. I am warm and so cold, here alone in a blizzard, and comfort nears closer with every heavy layer. I am stilled by the subtle quiet of delicate voice and muted drums and strings, by honest sweetness and shy unveiling of naked desires. I am not much for focus today, feeling it better to get lost and dream instead.

“I had a thought, dear
However scary
About that night
The bugs and the dirt
Why were you digging?
What did you bury
Before those hands pulled me
From the earth? 

I will not ask you where you came from,
I will not ask you and neither should you,
Honey just put your sweet lips on my lips,
We should just kiss like real people do.

I knew that look dear
Eyes always seeking
Was there in someone
That dug long ago
So I will not ask you
Why you were creeping
In some sad way I already know.

I will not ask you where you came from,
I will not ask you and neither should you,
Honey just put your sweet lips on my lips,
We should just kiss like real people do.”

~Like Real People Do
Hozier, Hozier


“I had a dream I was being dissected by all of my friends, and I was so scared of the scalpel. Anytime it was raised to make another incision, I would start crying and screaming even though I knew I wouldn’t feel it. Everyone would verbally try to soothe me, and I kept screaming for someone to touch me so I knew I was still alive, but it’s like they weren’t sure either. The next thing I remember, I was standing outside in some field, and I felt perfectly fine. Then I sat down, and suddenly it was like the sutures ripped, and all my organs fell out.” 8-11-05

(I have no place else to put that, so there it is. I wrote those words years ago, and yet, I remember that dream crystal clear.)

This is my favorite song I listened to today. It came into my head this morning, after waking up at 6:30 a.m. when the sky was still dark blue for the first time this season. That, and the chill in the air, says to me it’s changed for good. Until next summer, anyway.

So this morning, I put this song on, from an old album from a previous life that resonates perhaps truer than before but has not lost its pretty quality. Now, I am not a Matt Nathanson apologist. Rather, I genuinely think he’s a great songwriter and performer. He sets lyrics very well, he writes satisfying progressions and melodies. I love the simple piano in this song, the effortless ascension and suspension that holds and wavers and fades. And I love the desperate questions. What is it about songs about New York that are just somehow sadder than the rest? And what is it about the impending loss of intimacy that makes seeing the world outside go on about its business feel so much more empty? Why does it feel like the seasons are changing? Probably because they are.

“Somewhere in between
The beginning and the end
September took the tourist
And settled in for good

You could hear the trains again
Brooklyn girls in scarves
Summer left and no one said a word.
We’d open your window,
Stay in your bed,
All day ’til the street lights came on

So what happened to bulletproof weeks in your arms?
What happened to feeling cheap radio songs?
What happened to thinking the world was flat,
What happened to that?

Up on 59th street,
Right before the rain,
Lovers catching taxis going downtown.

I’m talking to what’s left of you
Watching what I say
Counting all the freckles on your perfect face

You open your window,
And I stay on your bed,
Just hoping that right words will come.

So what happened to bullet proof weeks in your arms,
What happened to feeling cheap radio songs,
What happened to thinking the world was flat,
What happened to that

So what happened to bullet proof weeks in your arms
What happened to feeling cheap radio songs
What happened to thinking the world was flat
What happened to that?

 It’s all gone,
Love, it’s all wrong.

So what happened to bullet proof weeks in your arms
What happened to feeling cheap radio songs
What happened to thinking the world was flat
What happened, what happened to that?”

~Bulletproof Weeks
Matt Nathanson, Some Mad Hope

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